World of mouth: The Traders

Brothers Karam, left, and John Haddad in their shop. They are famous for their customer focus and traditional trading nous.
Mike Scott/Fairfax NZ
Brothers Karam, left, and John Haddad in their shop. They are famous for their customer focus and traditional trading nous.

There are worn mats in the heavy trafficked areas over slightly less worn carpet. Stock is higgledy piggledy, like it all came off the back of a small stranded cargo ship the night before.

It's a $2 shop in variety and a warehouse in layout, but instead of fragile plastic knick-knacks, there are name brands in big casual piles. Haddads feels like a bargain.

"The best quality at the best price. It's automatically a bargain, " says John Haddad, as if that is as obvious as the time of day.

He operates the clothing shop with his brother, Karam. They've been here for 47 years, building an extraordinary word- of-mouth reputation from the little town of Otorohanga in the King Country. Customers get good stuff and a floor show.

The brothers are stereo. The famous patter is no put-on. They use it in asides to each other too. When one runs out of zip in the middle of a spiel, the other will drop in a word or phrase of reinforcement, while the first takes a break or has a new thought. It's like talking to one man who doesn't have to breathe.

The pair have designed a hat. Not an American or Australian copy, but specifically for New Zealand, they say. They swear it takes years off the owner. They wear their own examples full time in the shop - to hide their thinning hair, says Karam. "It took us four years." "Four years it took us." "We designed it."

Saturdays are a blast, with customers in off the farm and from all corners of the island. "I was serving on a Saturday." "It's very busy on Saturday." "Saturday is flat out."

It's the lost language of capitalism. Shopping channel robots parrot it. Actors in 70s shows about East End shops mimic it. It's a (sensical) Rain Man double act - barrow boys and fish markets. It's a show and also real.

"It's hard to be genuine if you put on a front, " says John.

They were born here and grew up at the feet of their dad in the milk bar next door. Learning how to do retail like this, like it was the only way.

"The Lebanese are Phoenicians - traders from way back." The rhythm of the souk runs in their veins. Dad was Lebanese. He started the milk bar next door in 1935. A person even they describe as a showman who must have been like a creature from the moon in Depression-era Otorohanga.

The customers today are ordinary folk, laconic Kiwis, but people who know a genuine thing. They open up and relax and talk back in a way that usually needs alcohol.

The shop is in a two-hour stop town, says John. It's two hours into a journey from Auckland to the south. Similar from Taranaki and the Bay of Plenty.

The broken-up school terms are a great thing, bringing more travel and stopping and shopping. They do all seasons all the time, keeping winter and summer stock right through the year to cater for the bad summers and good winters and off-season visitors from the opposite hemisphere.

They get them too. Singer Marcus Mumford came in the other day with this year's pixie, Carey Mulligan, on his arm. They'd heard about the Haddad show and left with some gear. Karam didn't know who they were until he saw them in the paper the next day. Marc Ellis came in and did a spot about Marc Ellis.

The ANZ recreated their shop on an Auckland set and took them up to say a few lines standing next to some banker.

They have a small ad every so often to let people know they are still around. They like the attention - there is a big stack of clippings for the journalist to take away and they play a National Radio interview over the sound system when it gets quiet. But they're not big on boasting. They seem embarrassed by the formal advertising process.

"It's not nice to tell people to come to your shop."

They won't enter business contests, either, for fear of looking like skites. "Rude, " says one. They don't need to push it, they are all over the internet, but have no site of their own.

John believes there are too many toys to play with and the distractions have mounted dangerously in both driving and business.

They would never move to a bigger town like Hamilton. John believes he would spend too much time telling the council what they are doing wrong. And they can afford 3500 square feet in Otorohanga. They need it all. The shop is open to the back wall.

The last quarter of it is filled with precipitous cardboard boxes stacked most of the way to the ceiling.

They don't do change unless it is an improvement. They wrap things in brown paper. They got eftpos when it got embarrassing not to have it, but were one of the first to adopt credit cards.

There are no computers "alienating". It's all hand-written ledgers and easy to remember credit terms: "100 percent deposit, no interest."

There is a strict stock-control system involving a pencil and rubber and the sides of the cardboard boxes. They own no cellphones and John wears what may be the last functioning pager in New Zealand.

They draw the line at a ball gown, but can do a suit within a day with the help of the seamstress next door. There are no mirrors in the changing room, so buyers have to come out for one of the lads to have a look at how the new gear is hanging. The customer is to be made happy, but is not always right. Twice today Karam has had to gently suggest that short sleeves are not appropriate wedding wear, even in Otorohanga, and steer the guy towards something more fitting.

They are rarely out by the 5pm close, as there are after-work people to serve. Haddads is their personalities and there is a temptation to see the pair as simply a floor show, but the business also runs with a sharp sense of values.

There are many maxims.

"Never lose sight of the fact the customer doesn't owe you a living. As soon as the customer walks through the door, you've been honoured, " says John.

"Entertain the customer!" says Karam. "It all comes back to passion!"

"Passionate, positive, dedicated, committed, " says John. "There is no greater motivation than the fear of failure."

And "No matter how good you are, never think that you are the best and you can't do any better."

And "Business is like a garden in your backyard - you only get out what you put in."

There are tricks. The Asian tourists sometimes come with limited English. "The one thing every nationality understands is a smile. If you don't know what they want, keep smiling and it will work out. Never look worried!"

Australians don't like a sales pitch and you talk to them about their holiday. The Americans want to know the history of a product. Aucklanders are fantastic because they know prices.

There are observations. John believes the new generation has lost the art of conversation and shopping. Probably the fault of the internet. They believe if you have a business and another time- hungry pursuit, you will fail at one of them.

There is no time to visit the big extended family in the US. Time away from the shop is time never returned. "We don't travel." "Don't travel." "We don't like to be away from the shop." "I think I'm missing out."

Karam is puzzled by some who come for advice. "They always ask, How much money can I make with this sort of store!" Incredulous, as if they're asking what colour it should be. "But you have to enjoy it!"

John says he doesn't have time to read books, but he can talk on any subject. "Swiss watches?" He produces five minutes on their demise and why and but how Casio is still OK.

The brothers were born either side of World War II and there have been health concerns lately. There is no-one in the wings. They will go on till "one man drops". And then that's it.

They don't read books, but they should write a book or have one written. The Haddad Way, or something else as gripping. But they won't. There's no time. It's all known things and common sense, anyway, as simple and pointless as saying, Hit the ball into the goal lots.

"You have to like people, " says John. "Every day it's like being on stage, " says Karam. It's impossible to learn. "It has to be real, you have to do it from the heart, " says John. "It has to be in you."